Mojo - September 2010

A Republican Upset in Connecticut?

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 11:53 AM EDT

Things aren't looking so hot for Democrats in the Connecticut Senate race, where a once fairly secure seat could end up flipping for the GOP. The latest poll from Quinnipiac shows Democratic candidate Richard Blumenthal leading Republican challenger, World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon, by just 6 points at 51-45 percent. The seat is currently held by retiring Sen. Chris Dodd in a state that hasn't swung for a Republican Senator since 1982. After Dodd decided not to run in light of his plummeting popularity in the state, Blumenthal, the popular attorney general, quickly became the front-runner in the race.

But it seems like McMahon has managed to ride the anti-Democratic wave to gain ground against Blumenthal, even though she's taken significantly more conservative positions than the Republicans who've typically come from Connecticut. Calling the race "surprising close," Quinnipiac notes that most McMahon supporters aren't necessarily crazy about her personally—but they're eager to cast a vote against Blumenthal, an staunch Democrat, in a state with big financial services firms that weren't too thrilled with the Wall Street reform bill. Though Democrats were probably relieved when Dodd decided not to run—alleged ethics violations and other baggage had clouded his race—Blumenthal will invariably be associated with the Democratic establishment and financial reform law that Dodd led to passage. And Linda McMahon has pledged to spend more than $50 million of her own fortune on the campaign, nearly half of which she's already spent on her primary campaign.

Blumenthal did become a popular figure in the state for his populist crusades against Big Tobacco, HMOs, and other corporate bad actors, but he's not a stellar campaigner. His bumbling on the trail has led some observers to call him "Martha Coakley in pants"—an unflattering comparison to the Democratic AG who went down in flames back in January in the Senate race against Scott Brown. Then the New York Times went after him for making allegedly misleading statements about his military service. Finally, Blumenthal will have a tough time drawing out the urban, minority voters in the state who came out in droves in 2008 for Obama's election (and ended up ousting moderate Republicans like Rep. Chris Shays in the process). Blumenthal still has a decent chance of winning—Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight gives him a 93 percent chance—but only if the Democrats don't get complacent and presume his victory is in the bag.

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The GOP's Greatest 2010 Defeat... Courtesy of the Tea Party?

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 6:30 AM EDT

UPDATE: Christine O'Donnell defeated Rep. Mike Castle in the Delaware Republican primary. Read more about the upset here.

Could the tea party's greatest triumph mark the biggest Republican loss this election cycle? Throughout the primary campaign season, the movement's tussles with the GOP have resulted in the rise of Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and Joe Miller—all tea party-backed candidates who upset the establishment Republican favorites in their respective Senate GOP primaries. And despite this internal squabble, the GOP seemed to be increasing its chances of taking over the Senate, as all had a good shot at winning in the general election. That was until tea partier Christine O'Donnell suddenly surged in the Delaware Republican primary against Rep. Mike Castle.

Castle, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans in Congress, has long been a favorite target of the grassroots right, but the going assumption was that he had a clear path to the Senate. Having developed a reputation for breaking from his party, the long-time Congressman was well liked in the small, Democratic-leaning state, making him the early favorite in the race for Vice-President Biden's old seat. But last month, Miller's surprise upset of Lisa Murkowski in Alaska created in a massive boost of support for O'Donnell—including endorsements from Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), the National Rifle Association, and the major national tea party groups. And this right-wing campaign seems to have paid off, with the latest poll from Public Policy Polling showing O'Donnell with a three points lead over Castle, 47-44, in Tuesday's primary.

Ending the Good War

| Tue Sep. 14, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Now that the bad war in Iraq is over, all we've got left is our good one in Afghanistan. Last week, the center-left Afghanistan Study Group (ASG) officially released its "New Way Forward" report. "Prosecuting the war in Afghanistan is no longer essential for U.S. security interests," it announces up front. ASG's report offers some basic principles around which to build a viable "Plan B," a strategy that accepts that victory over insurgents isn't essential to preserving America’s national security interests. Its key recommendations include promoting political inclusion, downsizing the US military footprint, focusing security efforts on Al Qaeda, promoting economic development, and engaging regional stakeholders.

Considering the wealth of expertise on ASG's roster—which includes regional security expert Paul Pillar, economist James K. Galbraith, and group chair Steve Clemons—you'd expect to see hard-thought-out ideas, elaborate arguments, and inspired insight. Not so much, it turns out. Instead, the report is chock-full of vague recommendations and dated, sometimes curiously optimistic thinking.

"Protecting our interests does not require a U.S. military victory over the Taliban," it reads. It dismisses the group as a Pashtun insurgency that feeds on feelings of disenfranchisement among rural Pashtuns, whose rise in the 1990s "was due to an unusual set of circumstances that no longer exist and are unlikely to be repeated." [emphasis added] "Non-Pashtun Afghans now have ample experience with Taliban rule," the report says, "and they are bound to resist any Taliban efforts to regain control in Kabul." All this, just as David Petraeus admits that the Taliban's footprint is spreading.

The report doesn't explore the"unusual set of circumstances" it mentions, and fails to note the open and ugly disagreement between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and western diplomats on the question of reconciliation with the Taliban. It also doesn't address the Taliban's complex relationship with regional players like the Pakistani intelligence service. Over at The Nation, Richard Dreyfuss writes that:

What the ASG woefully ignores, understates, or dismisses, however, is the fact that the Taliban is not merely a rural insurgency but a lethally organized force supported by Pakistan and its intelligence service, the ISI. The war in Afghanistan is, indeed, a civil war, but one in which one side is vigorously supported by Pakistan and the other side, largely represented by the former Northern Alliance and powerful segments of the Afghan government and parliament, is backed by India, Iran, and Russia. The ASG notes, in passing, the Pakistan ISI involvement, but it doesn't give it the prominence it deserves, especially since it is Pakistan that has the ability to bring most, if not all, of the Taliban to the bargaining table. [emphasis added]

That bolded text emphasizes the biggest frustration with a report like this: it masters the fine art of saying a lot while saying nothing at all.

One of President Obama's central justifications for fighting the war in Afghanistan was to prevent it from re-emerging as a safe haven for Al Qaeda. Never fear, the report says. Given the organization's reduced visibility and activity in Afghanistan, ASG argues, a drawdown wouldn't make the group "substantially more lethal." And if the Taliban were to regain some measure of control "it would not likely invite Al Qaeda to re-establish a significant presence there." But a recent Al Jazeera report from northern Afghanistan shows that Al Qaeda is ready and waiting to bolster its support of the Taliban:

In the ASG's report, you won't find any mention of limiting corruption, or of Karzai's growing resistance to the American-style strategy to root it out in his government. Nor will you get a sense of how the United States could go about engaging regional actors as diverse as China, Pakistan, India, and Saudi Arabia.

Despite all its tantalizing vagueness, the report does highlight what the Obama administration and pro-COINers tend to ignore: that a way out can, in fact, be a way forward. But if the experts behind the report are going to have any serious impact on the discussion, they have to decide how to bridge the reality of the war with our aspirations for what the good war is supposed to be.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 14, 2010

Tue Sep. 14, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

An Afghan Highway Police officer stands watch during a joint reconnaissance mission with U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment In Robat, Afghanistan, March 17, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Juan Valdes.

 

Bush or Cheney: Who's the Bigger Bogeyman?

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 10:50 AM EDT

George W. Bush or Dick Cheney—who's more frightening to liberals? Some progressive political strategists seem to believe the answer is Cheney.

This past weekend, Democracy for America, a grassroots progressive founded by Howard Dean that recruits, trains, promotes, and funds progressive candidates, sent out a an email signed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The piece focused on the current fight over whether to extend the Bush administration tax cuts for folks who make more than $250,000 a year. Leahy's email read,

To this day, America's top income-earners—households making more than $250,000 a year—aren't paying their fair share in taxes. Letting these tax cuts for the wealthy continue for another decade would saddle middle class Americans, our kids, and our grandkids with an additional $680 billion of debt, largely payable to the Chinese government.

The Bush-Cheney tax cuts for the wealthy are wrong. Thankfully they're set to expire this December, unless Republicans in Congress get their way and renew them indefinitely.

With debate set to begin on the Senate floor as early as next week, we don't have a lot of time to get this right.

Leahy asked recipients of the email to sign a petition urging Congress to allow the tax cuts for the rich to expire. And in his note, he repeatedly referred to these breaks as the "Bush-Cheney tax cuts."

Yet the email's subject line put it a bit differently. When a recipient spotted the email in his or her inbox, the note was titled, "Dick Cheney's Tax Cut." The guy at the top was missing. The point of a subject line for a mass email is to get the recipient to click and open the message. DFA's consultants must figure that Cheney is more of a motivator for their target audience than Bush. That prompts a question: should Democrats this campaign season run against "Cheney Republicans"?

Truthers Crash 9/11 Tea Party

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 6:04 AM EDT

Yes, that's a giant inflatable "elephant in the room." | Photo: Stephanie Mencimer.

Schedule a tea party on the grounds of the Washington Monument on the anniversary of 9/11 and you're likely to get a few counter-protesters or people with nutty signs. But while tea partiers seem to have high tolerance for say, LaRouchies and birthers, they don't seem to have much patience with truthers, conspiracy theorists who think that the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11 might have been orchestrated by the Bush administration. A bunch of them decided to show up Saturday carrying a giant elephant and a big sign claiming "it wasn't Muslims!" They marched through the back end of the rally sponsored by Unite in Action, an umbrella group of tea party and other "patriot" organizations, and immediately caught the attention of some of the yellow-shirted volunteers policing the rally perimeter. They asked the truthers to leave, there was a confrontation, and eventually US Park Police shooed the truthers off to another part of the monument grounds.

Not everyone at the rally saw the need to throw out the truthers. David Newman-Stump was with a group of guys waving enormous "Sons of Liberty" flags who were right in the middle of the confrontation. Initially, I thought they were from the biker club, Sons of Liberty Riders, that usually shows up for these protests, but these Sons of Liberty, while associated with the riders, were actually a metal band that had played DC's 9:30 Club Friday night. They came to the defense of the truthers because, "That's exactly the kind of tyranny we're trying to fight," explained Newman-Stump. "They have a constitutional right to speak." But the Sons lost that battle to the big, burly volunteers from Unite in Action, who made a pretty menacing effort to keep the truthers out. I later saw one of the volunteers oust another guy wearing a "9/11=Inside Job" T-shirt. He was standing peacefully in the crowd and wasn't bothering anyone, but apparently the tea partiers' devotion to First Amendment rights for conspiracy theorists is a little selective. 

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"Campaign Finance Reform Is on Its Last Legs"

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

James Bopp, the conservative mastermind behind the Citizens United case, boasts that nearly all the campaign finance regulations passed in recent history have been dismantled. "Campaign finance regulations used to sit on four legs...now the Supreme Court has eliminated three legs and cut the other one in half," said the Indiana lawyer, speaking at Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Conference last week. Regulation, he concluded, "is on its last legs."

Bopp, the current general counsel for the anti-abortion group National Right to Life, has played a central role in dismantling many of the campaign finance regulations that have been enacted since the 1970s. In 2007, Bopp successfully defended Wisconsin Right to Life in its Supreme Court case against the Federal Election Commission, winning a decision that laid much of the groundwork for Citizens United. And while Bopp didn't argue Citizens United when it reached the high court two years later, he didn't really have to: The case was his brainchild.

Bopp proudly points out that the Supreme Court has now repeatedly been swayed by his argument that corporate speech is covered under the First Amendment and that corporations should therefore be allowed to spend as they please. At the Reed event, however, he added that corporations should have the right to remain anonymous if they decide to spend money in an election—and that the Founding Fathers would have wanted it that way. He points out that the famous authors of the Federalist Papers used pseudonyms to sign them. "If you don't know the author of the argument, then all you can do is talk about the argument, the merits of the argument," he told me.

Tea Partiers Heart Black People

| Mon Sep. 13, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

White people have never loved the black man as much as they did this weekend at the big "9/12" tea party rally in DC. After months of fending off charges of racism, tea partiers who gathered on Sunday for their second annual march on the Capitol seemed to go out of their way to prove that they're not only not racists—they have black friends! At a rally that was mostly white, Gary Washington, an activist from the First State Patriots in Delaware, stood out as the rare black man in the crowd. Far from feeling like an outsider, though, he said, "I've been out socializing all day. It's beautiful." Lots of white people had come up and asked to have their photos taken with him. He said even more had made a point to tell him how much they appreciated his coming to the march.

As if to prove his point, an older white man walking by stopped to slap Washington on the back and give him a hug. Bill Alford, a self-proclaimed hillbilly from Tennessee declared, "We're not racists." He chatted up Washington like they were old friends before heading off. They had just met.

Rockville, Md. resident Dean Cowan, hiding behind sunglasses and reclining in a lawn chair Sunday, said that he had a similar experience last year. He drew lots of attention from white activists at the rally, but that was in part because he was carrying a sign adorned with a picture of Nancy Pelosi with a mustache. This year he was keeping a lower profile. Still, while no one had approached him, Cowan said that he could see people walking by give him a little smile like they "want to connect. Last year I was more open to that. This year, I don't really want to make a statement. I just want to listen." Unlike Washington, he thought the crowd was whiter (and also smaller) than it was last year. "I don't know where all the minorities are," he said with a laugh. But he didn't care. "I love being around like-minded people. I have so many reasons to be here. I hate Obamacare."

Not all the black people on hand received such a warm reception, at least not at first. A bunch of African-American guys from Boss Group Ministries had come up from Florida and were handing out flyers that said, "SAVE BLACK PEOPLE FROM DEMOCRATS WHO STARTED THE KKK." The flyers reminded readers in very small print that the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who endorsed Obama, had been the Grand Cyclops of the KKK. The men were wearing "God's Tea Party is Not Racist" T-shirts, but the tea partiers were still eyeing them as if they might well be those nasty New Black Panthers Glenn Beck warned might be around to cause big-time trouble. To be sure, one guy in aviator sunglasses and Afro did look like a vintage 1970's black nationalist. But once people saw "KKK" and "Democrats" in the same sentence, they warmed up to him. He told me he was there because the tea party wasn't racist and because his group just wanted to see black and white people come together. And what better place to do that than a big tea party rally in DC?

Speakers at the rally mimicked the individual tea partiers' love for minorities (except for some of those illegal Latino immigrants who aren't paying income taxes). People like Andrew Breitbart gave the requisite speeches about how Katie Couric and the mainstream media invented tea party racism. Despite all the red meat queued up for the crowd, the 9/12 march was distinctly smaller than last year's. When tea partiers came to Washington on 9/12 in 2009, their huge numbers caught the political establishment off guard. The day became legendary in tea party annals and a sacred date for the fledgling grassroots movement.

Organizers from the advocacy group FreedomWorks, headed up by former GOP House Minority Leader Dick Armey, and various tea party groups, were clearly hoping for similar results this year. But judging from the turnout, that didn't happen. In some ways, Sunday's crowd size demonstrates just how much of an influence Fox News star Glenn Beck has on the burgeoning tea party movement. Last year, he heavily promoted the 9/12 march on his show, and many attendees attributed their presence in Washington to his encouragement.

This year, however, Beck decided to stage his own rally in Washington. That event, held just two weeks ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, drew tens of thousands of people who might otherwise have come to the 9/12 march. Beck seems to have sucked the wind out of the tea party rally. The smaller turnout may also reflect the fact that tea partiers are tired of marching. While last year, the 9/12 rally was packed to the gills, standing room only, this year, people came with lawn chairs and spread out on picnic blankets like they were going to hear Tony Bennett at Wolf Trap. But activists say that a lot of those folks who didn't come are back home working feverishly to get conservatives elected in November. 

Given how close the rally is to several key primaries—Washington himself planned to campaign for tea party fav Christine O'Donnell in her insurgent run against incumbent moderate Sen. Mike Castle in the Delaware GOP primary Tuesday—activists may simply be turning their energy towards getting out the vote. If they succeed, no one will much care that this year's 9/12 march turned out to be a little smaller than last year's. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 13, 2010

Mon Sep. 13, 2010 2:55 AM EDT

US Army Staff Sgt. Jesse D. Smith, a squad leader with 3rd Platoon, Troop C, 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, looks out over a ravine in a Koh-e Safi District village here Sept. 8. Photo via the US Army.

Live from the 9/11 Tea Party Rallies

| Sat Sep. 11, 2010 2:43 PM EDT

After covering Ralph Reed's Faith and Freedom Conference Saturday morning, Mother Jones' Stephanie Mencimer headed over to the National Mall for the tea partiers' 9/11 "March on DC." She's following the march on Twitter: